According to research, those being mentored should be open to feedback, be active listeners, be respectful of their mentor’s time — including being on time and prepared for meetings — and should follow at least some of their mentor’s advice.
“Successful mentorship is vital to career success and satisfaction for both mentors and mentees,” said Dr. Sharon Straus, a researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital and author of the paper published online in Academic Medicine.
Straus examined mentor-mentee relationships at two large academic health centers, the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine and the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, where she is director of the Division of Geriatric Medicine. And while her focus was on teaching hospitals, she said she believes many of her findings could apply to other professions.
Her research identified five key ingredients necessary for a successful mentoring relationship: reciprocity, mutual respect, clear expectations, personal connections and shared values.
Failed relationships were characterized by poor communication, lack of commitment, personality differences, perceived or real competition, conflicts of interest and the mentor’s inexperience.
Faculty members interviewed for her study said mentees need to take their mentors’ advice seriously. They don’t have to accept every word, but if they ignore most of the advice, it’s a fruitless relationship, she noted.
Good mentors were said to be honest, trustworthy and active listeners, meaning they were engaged with the mentee during each session, focused on the issues identified by the mentee and helped the mentee set goals.
The good ones also had a network of colleagues and collaborators who could open doors for their mentees, help jump-start their careers or just explain how the system works, Straus said. In addition to providing career advice, they also helped their mentees achieve work-life balance.
“One of the key challenges for mentors and mentees is a lack of time and participants stated that the effective mentors ensured that they remained accessible to their mentees even if they were located at a distance,” Straus said. “Although they may not be able to meet in person regularly, effective mentors used email and phone contact to ensure accessibility.”
Good mentors also warned mentees of potential pitfalls, according to the researcher. One mentee described this role as being like a “guardian angel [who] prevents you from hitting yourself when you know something is falling from the sky.”
Previous studies have found that effective mentorship produces university faculty who are more productive, are promoted more quickly and are more likely to stay at their institutions. Given the importance of mentoring, she recommends training programs focusing on promoting the characteristics of effective mentoring.
But what should you do if the mentoring relationship just isn’t working?
Straus said strategies include using a mentorship facilitator or the department chair as a mediator, as well as implementing a “no-fault divorce” rule so either side can end the relationship.